I’ve recently come to believe that every family has its own brand of crazy, and it comes in all different styles — new-to-you styles. Let’s talk about how to navigate each gatherings with your spouse, while also making every effort to have a great time with the in-laws.
1. Always communicate clearly
There are certain times when we need to communicate clearly with our spouses during the holidays: Before you get to the holiday party (or everyone arrives at your place), during the festive gathering, and after you leave.
Before going, talk about the upcoming event. What will you or won’t you be talking about? How will you act around crazy Uncle Bob who likes to get sloshed and ask inappropriate questions? Remind one another that you’re husband and wife first. Parents second. Siblings and kids last.
You need to prioritize your marriage and family over extended family, so decide that from the start. For instance, if you know your child needs a nap in the afternoon to ensure that he won’t get overtired and cranky, that needs to be the priority. Establish the expectation when the party or event begins, and then honor that priority.
2. Be flexible and accept that families do things differently.
In my family, we gather the whole big clan in a small family room. Someone distributes trash bags to each family member for discarded wrapping paper. Another yells, “Go!” Then, we tear into the presents. It takes approximately 10 minutes to finish the gift-giving ceremony.
And this is totally different than how my wife’s family handles things. They all sit down, slowly distribute gifts one at time, and then watch everyone open presents individually.
At the beginning of our marriage, my wife was overwhelmed by my family’s tradition and I was antsy during hers. (I mean, it seemed so slow—and everyone was watching me open gifts! Awkward.) Now, we recognize our families are just different.
We also learned that it’s important to have both celebrations, and another. My family celebration, her family celebration, and our family celebration with just our immediate family. That way, we could begin our own tradition as a family, and still enjoy the two extended family traditions that we grew up with.
3. Set specific boundaries
We have our family celebration on Christmas morning. Everyone else’s celebrations can happen before or after that. It doesn’t matter to us, but we do have our very own special time. It’s important to us that we continue our tradition, while still honoring everyone else’s, too.
Beyond that, boundaries come in lots of shapes and sizes. If you aren’t OK with your mom’s new special friend because you don’t want to have to explain it to the kids too soon, say so. Explain nicely that she’s still welcome, but you’d like to hold off inviting her new beau.
4. Stay part of the same team.
I have this tendency to go into “son mode” when we visit my family. My wife noticed that I wasn’t thinking like a husband and dad during these visits — I was thinking like a 12-year-old boy. I was inserting myself into my old life, and forgetting my married life.
The number-one thing about dealing with in-laws as a couple? You’re in this together, and that doesn’t include your in-laws. For example, whatever comments your mom says about your spouse are her thoughts. She needs to either keep them to herself, or share them with both of you together so you can have a civil conversation about her feelings. Your priority is your marriage.
5. Hold back from making snide comments.
Never bad mouth your spouse in front of extended family (or ever, for that matter). If you have a disagreement, go to a quiet place and talk about it. Ideally, you want to present a united front.
Conversely, if your spouse is assaulted verbally by a family member, you must come to his or her support. Don’t stand for derogatory remarks. When you entered your marriage, your family also accepted your spouse into the family.
Celebrating together as an extended family is a privilege. If there’s verbal or other abuse, that privilege goes away. You don’t have to feel attacked in any way, shape or form. If you feel unsafe, decide on other arrangements for your holiday.
Think about some of these ideas when you tackle in-law visits with your spouse. Take the needed steps to have a great time with extended family, because there’s no reason to be miserable.